Buddist Pilgrims flocking to Nalanda University
Thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from Thailand and worldwide are flocking to the holy sites in northern India and Nepal in what is becoming one of the travel industry's biggest growth sectors: religious tourism.
The numbers are growing in line with significant improvements being made in infrastructure as well as the quality of supporting travel and transport arrangements. Roads, airports and railway services are being upgraded. Dozens of hotels have emerged. One of them in Bodhgaya is appropriately named "Thai International".
The circuit incorporates various holy sites in Bodhgaya, Sarnath, Rajgir, Varanasi, Nalanda, Lumbini, Kushinagar and Sravasti, all associated with places where the Buddha was born, preached, attained enlightenment and died.
Known as "Following the Footsteps of the Buddha", the sites attract several hundred people a day. Most appear to be Sri Lankans who also come in the low-season summer months to enjoy lower hotel rates and airfares.
In the winter, from October-March, the regular traffic includes Thais and visitors from industrialised countries, both regulars and new Buddhist devotees. Last week, my group alone included people from Mexico, Mauritius, Italy, Hong Kong, the UK, Canada and India.
Separately, two other large all-Thai groups were also travelling on the Mahaparinirvan Express, a special rail journey organised by the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation, a division within the massive Indian railway system that caters to foreign visitors.
The rolling stock is leased from the railway enterprise and the price of US$150 to $160 per person per night is affordable to a middle-class market, preventing it from becoming too elitist.
Leading one of the groups was Narierut Pantong, managing director of Nisco Travel, which specialises in Buddhist tours. She says that everything is getting better by the year: the roads, quality of hotels, food and the tour arrangements.
"When I started these tours several years ago, the toilets on the train were always in a mess, and the hotel food was terrible. Now the Indian Railways people have evaluated the feedback and taken positive steps," she says.
Nalanda, site of what is claimed to be the world's oldest university, has been cleaned up extensively, with security guards posted to stop graffiti scrawling, one of the biggest problems at the sites.
Thais are coming in droves, to the extent where the young urchins in one village near a holy spot can even now count in Thai. The entire area is dotted with numerous Thai temples and monasteries that are well-maintained, thanks to the huge funds coming in via donations as well as purchases of souvenirs, amulets and Buddha images.
At one stop just before crossing the border to Nepal, a temple that functions as a rest and refreshment stop is manned entirely by Thai monks.
In Sravasti, Uttar Pradesh, where the Buddha spent 25 monsoon seasons, a huge Buddha image and a 110-metre stupa now under construction are under the aegis of the World Peacefulness Foundation, whose chairman and patron is Maha Upasika Sitthipol Bankot.
The entire area of several thousand square metres began with the planting of 9,999 banyan trees, creating a natural forest and a fresh-water reservoir. A huge meditation centre houses six large halls of 3,000 capacity each.
The area boasts several more temples and monasteries of various Buddhist denominations from Sri Lanka, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Tibet. Some are supported by governments but many are self-funded via donations.
But there is a considerable way to go. Some hardship is a necessary part of being on a pilgrimage. The Buddha sought to keep the focus on human suffering, and there is plenty of that in India, both in the villages as well as all along the roads and pathways.
Signage and waste disposal facilities are still poor. Civic sense remains a challenge. Garbage is strewn in many places, with plastic bottles even floating in the ponds at some sites. Beggars and vendors wait outside the holy spots, ready to swarm over pilgrims.
Carrying capacity will soon become an issue. The temple at Bodhgaya, the site of Buddha's enlightenment, can barely cope with the numbers and will soon face more pressure as the hundreds of daily visitors soon become thousands.
Indeed, Bodhgaya should see much improvement following a change of government in Bihar, long impoverished by the corrupt former administration.
Navigating this itinerary requires a good tour-management system so that devotees can remain focused on their primary purpose for being there.